My last post about puzzles in roleplaying games included a few examples. I’m quite proud of those – they’re fun in their own right and fit in well with fantasy settings. They’re a good difficulty level, too.
But they were all a similar style – logic puzzles. Okay, one had some riddles layered on top and it worked really well, but solving the riddle was only part of it. Now, logic puzzles are great. It’s just that sometimes you want variety or maybe your group hates that style of game.
Okay, no worries. Lay one of these puzzles on them.
Logic puzzles work well because they are relatively safe. They have rules and set outcomes. It’s usually clear what to do, if not immediately then after some mucking around. Puzzles with a looser set of mechanics can have things go wrong. Players can misread the situation or miss vital clues or find a simple-yet-reasonable way around. These risks are there with every encounter, let alone puzzles, but the dangers increase the less logic-based the puzzle is.
The benefits, apart from a different style of challenge, are that these puzzles mesh beautifully with a fantasy setting. A whimsical nature spirit is unlikely to ask adventurers to complete a magic square; they are more likely to challenge the bard to a poetry contest or something. Some corners of a high-fantasy realm will be less welcoming to mechanical engineers and more suited to artisan musicians. Occasionally, the challenges must reflect this.
Do you have any puzzles where the players have to think around the problem rather than through it? Share them in the comments.
The Water Room
Beyond an ordinary-looking door in a dungeon is the Water Room:
This next room is a cube, 30 feet to each side. The surface of the floor, ceiling and each wall is coated with a thin layer of water. As you open the door, ripples travel across the floor and up the walls, as if every surface were part of a large pond.
The surfaces are polished stone and contain random scuffmarks, mostly on the floor. There does not appear to be any other exit or windows of any kind.
In order to proceed, the PCs have to do the only thing their players are better at: stand still. The other exit is a door on the far side of the room. It is a reflection of the entry door, but only when the water is still does the reflection appear.
With this puzzle, a lot hinges on your descriptions. If you frequently mention that the walls, floor and ceiling are rippling and distorted by their constant poking around, they’ll (probably) pick up on it. The challenge is to get the players to describe their actions in detail – if they think they are standing still but you assume they are pacing, the puzzle becomes unreasonably difficult.
One thing to keep in mind is that you may need to adjudicate some strange outcomes. If the PCs freeze the ice, for example, does that make the door appear or does it block the reflection? I leave that up to you to decide – it’s your world, after all, not mine.
The Ancient Poem
Fair warning: some groups will love this puzzle but some will hate it. It breaks certain implied rules that could make it fun or could annoy everyone. My group liked it. Know your audience.
You find a plaque written in the Elfish <or whatever language one and only one PC knows> alphabet.
<to the PC who speaks that language> This is an old and obscure dialect of Elfish. You struggle with some of the terms, but you translate it into Common as something like:
I desire to desire you
But no contact is best,
I desire to restrain you
But my darkvision says cease
I desire to kiss you
But I desire desire it,
I desire to eat you
But your mouth is toxins
You’re toxins moving down my corridors
The answer is to speak the next line in Elfish (“I don’t wanna break these chains”). Any song works here if, for some reason, your players don’t know Alice Cooper’s Poison. But, again, some players might not like the real world bleeding over to the setting quite so… unsubtly.
Those that do will get a real kick out of it.
The Reverse Password
A quirky take on a common trope. This is a roleplaying challenge that feels like a puzzle, hence its inclusion here.
The door is sturdy metal, elaborately painted and engraved. Runes and other arcane symbols line the frame. There is no visible handle or keyhole. The word “GREAT” is engraved in the stonework above the door – a hasty, rough job compared to the door itself.
As you approach, a distorted oval half a foot wide appears. “Hello?” the door says before patiently waiting for an answer.
The answer is, instead of speaking the password, to trick the door into speaking it (“great”). The door is somewhat intelligent – it knows it has to keep the PCs out but it doesn’t know what word it has to avoid.
The door is bored, though. It knows many stories of adventurers and loves to share some of its favourites, in exchange for the party talking about their own. With some subtly leading questions, tricking it isn’t hard.
Due to the nature of the enchantments, the door forgets the password within 20 seconds of learning it. If the PCs say the password to the door (which is a reasonable guess), they will have to endure the door’s gloating about how it won’t be tricked into saying… erm.. what was that word again?
Enterprising PCs might attempt something like propping the door’s mouth open and reaching through. If they do, they will find a handle on the other side. The door has a decent bite and will do moderate damage to any limb inside it.
The Mean Trick, aka, Are You Oil Right?
This is hardly a serious defence. It’s the sort of thing an eccentric gnome would use to scare the local kobold tribe. Your necromancer bent on immortality will use something better.
The first thing you notice about the room is the smell of oil fumes. There are a few wooden tables scattered around – all are empty and don’t have any drawers. Crudely carved stone stairs lead upwards to three doors. From a glance, the left door has a simple lock; the middle door has a robust lock; and the right door has a high quality lock protected by enchantments.
As you enter the room, the door slams shut behind you. Oil starts seeping up through the cracks in the floor. A panel in the ceiling opens up – a lit torch attached to thick rope starts slowly descending towards the floor…
The oil stops rising when the floor is coated by three inches – enough to make everything difficult terrain. The left door leads to a closet with a simple skeleton warrior; the middle door, when opened, sprays the area with oil; the third door (with both mechanical and magic locks) is the exit.
The PCs might interact with the torch. The torch itself is real but the flame is an illusion, which means normal tricks (like extinguishing it with water) won’t work. Perceptive PCs might notice the flame isn’t hot and anything that counters illusions will see through it.
After the right door’s locks are picked or the torch reaches the floor, the oil seeps back into the ground and all doors open. Still, this is hardly harmless, as the oil-soaked PCs now have to be careful around naked flames…